Accents and Social Identity

The way in which someone speaks can tell us a lot about them, or at least we think it can. David Crystal, author of A Little Book of Languageasks his readers to listen to the accents of the people around them. If you listen closely enough, you might be able to guess where they come from, what kind of job they have or even what their family is like. However, our ears can’t always be trusted! Listen to the people reading the news on the radio, can you guess where they are from, or could their accents have changed?

Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from David Crystal’s A Little Book of Language, a work that explores language’s myriad intricacies and quirks. Today, our focus is on accents in England and the origins of Received Pronunciation.

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One of the quickest way to learn about someone’s background, David Crystal writes in A Little Book of Language, is to listen carefully to his or her accent. By paying attention, we can often figure out where they’re from, what kind of job they do, or what sort of social background they have. But this rule doesn’t work for everyone: take the people you hear reading the news on the radio. Their accents could be from anywhere, Crystal points out, and there’s a special term to describe this way of speaking:

‘In England, that neutral accent is called Received Pronunciation – or RP for short. It’s an accent that developed at the end of the eighteenth century among upper-class people […] If ordinary people all over the country dropped their ‘h’ sounds in words like ‘hospital’ and ‘hand’, then RP speakers would make sure they kept them in. If ordinary people all over the country pronounced the ‘r’ in such words as ‘car’ and ‘heart’, then RP speakers would make sure they didn’t.

As a result, a new kind of accent came into being. At first it was being used by the people in powerful positions in society […] [t]hen teachers began to use it in the big public schools (such as Eton, Harrow, and Winchester) and taught it to the children. There are many stories of children with a regional accent arriving for the first time at one of these schools and finding the older children (or even the teachers) laughing at the way they spoke. The newcomers would change their accents to RP within days! That was happening 200 years ago. It still sometimes happens today.’

Crystal then explains that these children with an RP accent went on to hold positions of power all across the world, and it wasn’t long before the accent became the ‘voice of Britain’. In fact, ‘to this day, the accent that most foreigners are taught, when they learn to speak British English, is RP.’

‘Since 1800, RP has been the chief ‘cultured’ accent in Britain. A lot of people simply call it ‘posh’. It was never spoken by huge numbers – at most, by about five per cent of the population – but it was the accent that people associated with someone who was from the higher social classes or who had received the best education. That’s why it was called ‘received’ pronunciation. It was seen as a sort of inheritance from your ancestors’.

Of course, Britain isn’t the only country that has such a division – places like France and Spain have it too – and besides, it isn’t as harsh a social divider as it was in the past. After all, there are plenty of people with regional accents in the top jobs across the country. Can you think of some?

A Little Book of Language

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